D: Billy O’Brien / 103m
Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Christina Baldwin, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Lucile Lawton, Anna Sundberg, Raymond Brandstrom, Michael Paul Levin
Welcome to the small US town of Clayton where the mutilated remains of one of the townsfolk ends up at the Cleaver-run funeral home. It’s actually the second such corpse to end up there, but the owner, April Cleaver (Fraser), isn’t too happy about the boost in business – given the circumstances. The same can’t be said for her son, John (Records), who views (literally) the bodies with a kind of excitement. Which isn’t surprising, as John has been recently diagnosed as a sociopath.
John ticks all the boxes for incipient sociopathy: bedwetting, pyromania and animal cruelty, but he’s self-aware and has a set of rules that he follows in order that he doesn’t act out on his violent impulses. He has a friend, Max (Brandstrom), that he hangs out with and does “normal” stuff, and he has a liking for a girl who lives across the road, Brooke (Lawton) (though he doesn’t know how to approach her, or talk to her even when she speaks to him). Aside from his mother, his aunt Margaret (Baldwin), and older sister Lauren (Sundberg), the only other people he interacts with are his therapist, Dr Neblin (Geary), and the elderly couple across the street, the Crowleys (Lloyd, Noah).
After the discovery of the second body, John starts to notice a mysterious man wandering around town and acting suspiciously. One day he follows the man, who bumps into Mr Crowley. Crowley is going ice fishing and the stranger invites himself along. John follows them out to a lake and watches as the stranger makes to stab the old man in the back. But John is astonished to see Crowley whirl round and using some kind of black, stick-like growth that shoots from his hand, kill the man instead. And then it gets weirder still…
What John sees causes him no end of confusion and indecision. But he’s also fascinated, impressed even on one level, and says nothing to anyone about what he’s seen. He begins to follow Crowley around town, until one afternoon the old man visits a barber’s. Once the other customers are gone, and the barber is distracted, Crowley locks the door and puts the Closed sign in the window. While he proceeds to kill the barber, John sets off the security alarm. Two policemen arrive, but when one of them discovers the barber’s body, Crowley kills both of them as well. Shocked, but also scared of putting anyone else in harm’s way, John decides that it’s down to him to do something about Crowley’s killing spree. But can he do it without betraying his own set of rules, and without giving in to the urges he manages to suppress?
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Dan Wells, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a dark comedy/drama that manages to work on several levels, and with a good deal of style and panache. Visually it’s a very dour, moody piece, even when Clayton is buried under a couple of feet of snow. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is an obvious asset, whether it’s capturing the look and feel of a small town teetering on the edge of hysteria, or reflecting on the dark emotions that drive both John and Mr Crowley. (It’s a banner year for Ryan, with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey also lensed by him and due out.) As the movie progresses and the streets of Clayton become emptier and emptier, Ryan’s camerawork helps increase the sense of isolation experienced by the characters, and heightens the drama. For a relatively low budget movie, Ryan’s work is exemplary and helps elevate the somewhat uneven material.
This unevenness is due to the twists and turns of the story, some of which work perfectly – Crowley’s first on-screen kill – and some of which don’t – John’s mother being put in harm’s way near the end. In adapting Wells’s novel, O’Brien and co-screenwriter Christopher Hyde have rightly emphasised the struggle John has in keeping his impulses in check, but they’re less successful in examining and relating the reasons why he keeps Crowley’s secret to himself. He’s clearly appalled by both the fact of Crowley’s being a serial killer, and the manner in which he carries out his kills, and also that he’s been doing it for a very long time (there’s a nod to Lloyd’s role in the Back to the Future trilogy, as one of Crowley’s younger identities is called Emmett). This is at odds with his sociopathy, which is played with and included as and when the script requires it. Other emotional outbursts are also at odds with Dr Neblin’s diagnosis, and there’s even room for a last-minute joke to further call his condition into question.
Notions of sociopathy aside, John is a wholly sympathetic character that, strangely enough, audiences should be able to identify with. As a teenager, he has trouble fitting in, and as a protagonist he’s pro-active in ways that we’d like to think that we would be in a similar situation. As he and Crowley play their game of cat and mouse, it’s easy to root for him because even when he appears to have killed someone – a definite no-no according to the rules – John’s reaction is one of horror rather than indifference. What’s also very clever (and very cleverly handled) is the way in which Crowley is allowed to go from homicidal maniac to a character every bit as sympathetic as John, and with a compelling motive for his actions as well.
Threaded throughout the story are moments of rich, dark humour – John’s way of dealing with a bully, Max’s father being interviewed on TV while he’s part of an angry mob – and John’s family background is given its fair share of screen time, revealing greater depths to the characters than is usual. As the fractured family, Fraser is under-used as John’s mother, while Baldwin is the strong-willed yet fair aunt, and Sundberg pops in and out of the narrative to remind viewers that John isn’t the only one trying to figure out their place in life. As John, Records gives an intuitive, carefully modulated performance that matches the character’s feelings of paranoia, while Lloyd provides a perfect mix of pathos and menace as the neighbourly serial killer with an even darker secret.
O’Brien ensures the movie is never less than intriguing, and directs at an unhurried, deliberate pace which suits the material and gives the narrative room to breathe. He’s also able to ensure that when things get really weird, the viewer isn’t put off by these developments or left stranded in open disbelief (a likely occurrence if this was in the hands of a less confident director). And the denouement, when it arrives, is unexpectedly touching, a surprise that is pulled off with aplomb, and which makes the movie a much more rewarding experience than usual.
Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire about I Am Not a Serial Killer, from its familiar small town vibe to its potent murder scenes, and the many ways in which it manages to subvert those small town vibes in order to heighten the drama; Records and Lloyd make for great adversaries, the special effects in the movie are used sparingly and to good effect, and the whole thing is far more entertaining and enjoyable than its semi-morbid title would have you believe.